There is a grand opportunity this spring for Notre Dame to make a long-awaited NCAA Tournament march in March.
Only twice in the last 33 years (1987 and 2003) have the Fighting Irish strung together consecutive wins in the Big Dance, but there is a huge opening in this year's West Region to make a Cinderella-like run. One-seed Gonzaga is vulnerable, three-seed New Mexico already has been eliminated and two-seed Ohio State could be the right matchup if the Fighting Irish survive Iowa State tonight.
What do we consider the five best moments for Notre Dame in NCAA Tournament play?
5. March 22, 2003: Happy Birthday, Sweet 16! – With apologies to Neil Sedaka, head coach Mike Brey’s 44th birthday 10 years ago came the same day the Irish defeated Illinois, 68-60, to advance to the “Sweet 16” for the first time in 16 years.
A five-point underdog in Indianapolis, the Irish shot a blistering 11 of 16 (68.8 percent) from three-point range in the first half, highlighted by Dan Miller’s 5-of-5, en route to a 47-34 halftime cushion. Illinois, the No. 4 seed, was unable to come closer than six points thereafter. Sophomore Chris Thomas helped control the action with freshmen Torin Francis and Chris Quinn, while Jordan Cornette excelled on defense.
“I’ll always remember 44,” said Brey, who hopes to celebrate No. 54 tonight with a victory versus Iowa State. “I was probably going to have a beer tonight anyway. I might have two now.”
The Irish were ousted in the Sweet 16 at Anaheim, Calif. by Arizona, 88-71.
4. March 13, 1976: Buzzer Beater – In the 32-team tournament when there was no seeding, the best first-round matchup featured No. 7 Notre Dame versus No. 15 Cincinnati at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kansas.
In the final 1:31, with no shot clock or three-point line, the Bearcats held 74-71, 76-73 and 78-75 advantages — but each time a long jumper by Irish sophomore guard Don “Duck” Williams pulled the Irish within one.
Trailing 78-77, the Irish defense forced a turnover with eight seconds remaining when Cincinnati was unable to in-bound the ball within the allotted five seconds. On the final possession, the Bearcats blanketed junior All-America Adrian Dantley, forcing Bill Paterno to shoot a 20-foot jumper. The ball caromed high off the back rim, but 6-foot-9 center Toby Knight swooped in from the foul line to tip the ball into the basket as time elapsed.
In the second-round, No. 9 Michigan rallied in the second half to upend Notre Dame in the closing minute, 80-76, the second time in three years the Wolverines destroyed Irish national title aspirations. Michigan would lose to Indiana in the final, the last time a team went unbeaten.
3) March 7, 1970: Unbreakable! — No. 15 Notre Dame snapped its school-record 12 years without an NCAA Tournament victory with a 112-82 romp over 21-4 Ohio U., the Mid-American champ that had toppled Big Ten foes such as Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue to make the 25-team field.
What the 13,540 in attendance saw at the Dayton University Arena will never be witnessed again. Junior Austin Carr scored 21 points in the game’s first 11 minutes while on his way to an NCAA-Tournament record 61 points, converting 25 of 44 (57 percent) from the field and 11 of 14 from the foul line. Collis Jones was his usual overshadowed self with 24 points and 17 rebounds, and point guard Jackie Meehan handed out a school-record 17 assists while attempting only one field goal.
In the round of 16, the Irish led No. 1 Kentucky 87-86 before falling, 109-99. Carr poured in 52 points while shooting 22 of 36 (61 percent) from the floor.
Tonight will be Notre Dame’s first postseason game in Dayton since that year.
2. March 12, 1954: The 1 And Only! — The Notre Dame men’s basketball program has defeated a No. 1-ranked team (AP or UPI) nine times, second only to UCLA. Only one of those Irish victories occurred in the NCAA Tournament, and it came on this day.
At the Iowa Field House in Iowa City, No.6-ranked Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight with a 65-64 upset of defending national champ Indiana, led by All-Americans Don Schlundt and Bob Leonard. Avenging a 66-55 loss at Bloomington in December — plus a 79-66 third-round loss to the Hoosiers the previous year — future Notre Dame athletics director Dick Rosenthal (1987-95) led the charge with 25 points and 15 rebounds while holding the 6-foot-10 Schlundt to one field goal. A Rosenthal hook shot put Notre Dame ahead for good at 62-60, and two free throws by Rosenthal with 17 seconds left extended the lead to the coveted three points (65-62).
The victory improved Notre Dame to 22-2 and extended its winning streak to 18, a modern day school record. The triumph also left Notre Dame as the highest-ranked team among the eight left in the tourney.
Alas, that victory over Indiana was to Notre Dame basketball what the conquest of No. 1 Florida State in 1993 was to football. Football lost the next week to Boston College to fall from No. 1, and basketball was upset by Penn State, 71-63, the day after the Indiana victory. LaSalle, led by Tom Gola, went on to capture the national crown.
1. March 19, 1978: Finally, The Final Four! – A preseason pick to be among the nation’s top 5 teams, Notre Dame’s deepest team ever fulfilled its destiny with an 84-64 victory over No. 3 DePaul in Kansas’ Allen Field House to advance to the Final Four for the first (and still only) time in its history.
Head coach Digger Phelps’ lineup included three players who would play at least 10 years in the NBA (Bill Laimbeer, Orlando Woolridge and Bill Hanzlik), plus a fourth (Tracy Jackson) who would play there several years. And that was just the second team! The starters included center Bruce Flowers, forwards Dave Batton and freshman phenom Kelly Tripucka, and guards Don Williams and Rich Branning.
One month earlier, head coach Ray Meyer’s Blue Demons traveled to Notre Dame and upset the Irish in overtime, 69-68. In the rematch, Notre Dame’s depth overwhelmed DePaul. Tripucka scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Branning played a nearly flawless floor game with 15 points and seven assists.
“Our top five players can beat Notre Dame’s top five players,” said Meyer afterwards. “But our top 10 players against their top 10 – no way!”